Finding Magic in the Basswood Tree—Foraging

A profusion of flowers on a basswood tree on a marsh in Ontario (photo by Nina Munteanu)

It was a warm blustery day in early July when Nature’s summer blooms whirled in a watercolour of reds, yellows, and purples in the fields by the stream.

A scent caught my attention. A delicate honey fragrance I could not identify. Not sickly-sweet or heady like honeysuckle. Not exotic or pungent like jasmine. More airy and subtle like a wild rose with a hint of peas.

Then I saw them, the unassuming cream-coloured flowers of the American Basswood (Tilia Americana). The tree rose magnificently by the marshy stream in a mix of maples, willow and ash.

Inflorescence of basswood flowers in July, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

The basswood was flowering profusely. Like dancers in a mid-summer ballet, the flowers dangled in clusters off a long stalk attached to a papery leaf-like bract. The 6-20 flowers formed gentle froths of cream and light green, speckled with yellow and the russets of burnt umber.

Parts of the basswood flower (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Each flower has five cream-coloured petals and sepals. Several stamens are grouped into five clusters and their yellow anthers turn dark to brownish when the pollen is mature. The ovary has a single white hairy style with five lobes at the tip. Attracted to the fragrant flowers, native bees buzzed around the nectar-bearing flowers; I’m told they make a strongly flavoured honey from these flowers.

Basswood nutlets dangle from the leaf-like bract (photo by Nina Munteanu)

When fertilized, each flower forms a hard grey-green nutlet covered in fine hairs and containing a single seed. The mature nutlets may drop to the ground in early fall or persist over the winter and last for several years. When released, the bract acts like a helicopter wing and carries the seeds away in the breeze. Nutlets are eaten by squirrels, mice, and chipmunks. A few days ago, an eager chipmunk that had climbed a basswood tree was was messily eating nutlets and dropping nut chips on my head below.

The Basswood—also known as the Linden tree in Europe—is a long-lived deciduous tree with a dense rounded crown and drooping lower branches. The root of the name—bass—is a corruption of ‘bast’, which is a type of fibre—associated with the use of the tree’s fibrous inner bark for twine and cordage by indigenous peoples and early settlers. I’m told that the basswood grows quickly, twice as fast as beech or birch, and may reach as high as 120 feet. They are also long-lived trees with a life expectancy of 200+ years. Their bark is smooth when young, furrowing with age into narrow scaly flat-topped ridges with horizontal cracks. Their signature asymmetrical heart-shaped leaves with saw-toothed margins start out pale green and downy, then become dark green and smooth. Basswood trees favour rich, moist soil and the one I’m standing next to has grown over sixty feet tall.

Kaditzer Linde (lithograph by Carl Wilhelm Arldt from 1840)

Basswood / Linden Tree Folklore

In German folk legend the Elf King lived under a Linden tree; dwarves loved the tree and heroes fell into enchanted sleep beneath it. Even dragons rested in its shade. The Germans planted the Linden outside of their houses to keep witches from entering. They believed that the flowers could not be brought indoors, or else they would give the girls of the house erotic dreams.

In the German hamlets. young and old gathered on warm summer evenings beneath the Linden tree to gossip, dance or romance. Old German judicial meetings were typically held under the Linden tree. They believed that the tree would help unearth the truth. The tree became associated with judgement even after Christianization; verdicts in rural Germany were frequently returned sub tilia (Unter der Linden) through the Gerichslinde (court Linden) until the Age of Enlightenment. 

In the 13th century German epic poem Die Nibelungenlied, the legendary hero Siegfried gained his invulnerability by bathing in the blood of a dragon. While he did so, a single Linden leaf stuck to him, leaving a spot on his body untouched by the blood and giving him a single point of vulnerability.

The image to the left depicts Siegfried, who, having slain the dragon Fafner, upon tasting its blood can now understand the speech of the birds.


The Linden with its heart-shaped leaves is the sacred tree of Aphrodite in Greek mythology and associated with Freya, the German goddess of truth and love. In the Slavic world, the souls of women were believed to move into linden and fir. In Baltic mythology, Laima, the goddess of Fate uses the Linden as her sacred tree; Lithuanian women prayed and gave sacrifices under Lindens for luck and fertility.

Tilia americana (Illustration by Asa Gray, 1891, Smithsonian)

Uses of the Basswood Tree—Eating

This tree has a long history of use. All parts of the basswood are usable, and most are also edible: flowers, seeds, leaves, buds and sap.

In her article “Unconventional Value of Basswood Trees” Jeanne Siviski provides an unconventional source for salad greens: the young basswood leaf. “In springtime, when the leaves of the basswood are small and glossy, they are sweet and delicious.  While foraging for wild edibles, it’s worthwhile to reach up and pluck some for a spring salad mix.” I have not tried this yet, but will next spring.

Asymmetrically heart-shaped basswood leaves (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Before the leaves have opened, when the sap is running, a syrup can be made. However, according to Ashley Adamant of PracticalSelfReliance, “The sap of linden trees (basswood) is said to have a very low sugar content.  The trees tend to grow where water is abundant, and as a result, have very watery sap…Most mentions of tapping basswood trees say that there’s not enough sugar in the sap to bother with boiling, but those same sites dismiss birch syrup just as easily.”

Basswood buds make a trailside nibble or emergency wilderness food source.  

One of the most interesting uses of the flowers and nutlets comes from 18th century Europe where a French chemist discovered that grinding the unripe nutlets of the European species with the dried flowers produced a substance with the aroma and taste of chocolate.

Other Uses of Basswood

Siviski writes that, “Trees with epicormic branching, like basswood, or its European cousin, the linden (Tilia x europaea), are suitable pollarding candidates.” Trees are not the conventional resource for domestic animal feed, Siviski tells us, but, production of “pollard hay” was one of the original purposes of pollarding in Medieval Europe. “Tree species in the Tilia genus would have also been pollarded for wood products; it carves easily, like butter, and can be used for rope-making. In some locations, pollarding is still practiced to produce fodder.  Pollarded lindens in Europe today, though, are mainly urban roadside plantings.”

The Friends of the Wild Flower Garden tell us that, “Basswood wood is soft, light and useful for utility things like boxes, veneer, wood carving, toys and mainly for pulpwood. It decays easily and is not suitable for exterior applications. Green Dean tells us that the indigenous “soaked the bark for two to four weeks to loosen long fibers. They used the fibers for many of their needs: Bags, baskets, belts, fishnets, house mats, snowshoe netting, ropes, sewing thread and even suturing wounds. It was used where a lot of fiber strength was not needed. The Ojibwa ate the young buds raw or cooked as greens and they used the sweet sap, boiling it down to a syrup.”

Blood and Spicebush write that “the wood was also traditionally used for lasts and shoemaker’s tables. It also was used to make charcoal for gunpowder. Fibre and shoes were even woven from it since prehistoric times like other bark fabrics.”

Medicinal Uses of Basswoods

A hot bath with basswood flowers, followed by a cup of linden-flower tea, is said to soothe cold symptoms and as a remedy for insomnia and nervous irritability. The flowers are also used in beauty products. In old Europe, the tea made from the blossoms was used to treat headaches. In France tilleul (Linden Tea) is used as a sedative drink. 

Making Basswood Tea

Pouring the boiled water into the pot of basswood flowers for tea (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Intrigued by the thought of making a tea with this fragrant flower, I invited naturalist friend Merridy to collect some flowers and share a tea.

Basswood flowers in boiled water ready to steep (photo by Nina Munteanu)

The process was quite simple. We collected a sufficient number of blossoms, placed them in a tea pot, then added boiled water and steeped for ten minutes. After that, we poured the tea, which was only lightly coloured and took a first sip. I found it perfumy, like patchouli.

Pouring the basswood tea (photo by Nina Munteanu)

“Oh! This isn’t too bad!” expostulated Merridy. “Like jasmine with a hint of cedar.”

After several sips, I described it as floral like a summer field with the aftertaste of the forest.  We both agreed that it reminded us of white tea. After a twenty minute steep we tasted again and found the tea had mellowed; it was more dominantly floral with less after taste. It was delightful.

Making basswood tea (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Healthline suggests several benefits of Basswood tea, including: 1) may promote relaxation; 2) may help fight inflammation (contains antioxidants like tilliroside and kaempferaol); 3) may reduce mild pain (through tilliroside and quercetin); 4) may lower blood pressure; 5) soothes your digestive tract (again through tilliroside).

Making Linden Blossom Syrup

Eve at The Garden of Eating describes the easy process of making basswood flower syrup. This is something I will definitely try next spring. It starts with picking flowers, including those that haven’t opened yet. Remove the bracts (which, though edible, can get gummy). First heat the sugar and water. While its heating give the flowers a rinse and shake then add them to the simple syrup, add some lemon juice and zest and give it a stir. Let cool then refrigerate (covered) for several days for the flavour of the flowers to infuse the syrup. Then drain the solids and store the flower-infused syrup in an airtight container. Lasts a month. Eve suggests using the syrup with seltzer and lemon for a delicious spritzer. It’s also great with fruit or yogurt.

Linden blossom syrup (image by Eve at The Garden of Eating)

“Making the flower-infused simple syrup is easy,” Eve tells us. “All you need is lemons, water, sugar, linden flowers and patience.” Here is Eve’s recipe and instructions.

Linden Blossom Syrup
Makes roughly 3 pints

Ingredients

* 3 cups water
* 5 cups linden blossoms (choose sprays that have some flowers that are open and some buds that are not)
* 4 organic lemons, zest and juice (make sure not to include any of the white pith)
* 1 lb organic cane sugar
* 1 1/2 cups organic agave nectar

Directions

1. Add the sugar and agave nectar to the water in a non-reactive pot (no copper) and bring just to a boil, stirring until the sugar is completely dissolved. 

2. Rinse the blossoms and give a little shake to remove any bugs or dirt. Take the pot off the heat and add the lemon juice, zest and flowers.

3. Cover and leave on the counter for about a day then put in the fridge for two to four days to give the flowers time to infuse their flavor into the syrup. Four days is better than two.

4. Pour the syrup through a fine-meshed metal sieve, cheesecloth or a jelly bag into the glass jars or bottles of your choice (I used three glass pint-sized Mason jars.) Screw the lids on tight and refrigerate – it should keep for at least a month (just check the top for mold :))

Basswood nutlets sunlit from behind (photo by Nina Munteanu)


The Linden Tree

At wellside, past the ramparts, 
there stands a linden tree. 
While sleeping in its shadow, 
sweet dreams it sent to me. 

And in its bark I chiseled 
my messages of love: 
My pleasures and my sorrows 
were welcomed from above. 

Today I had to pass it, 
well in the depth of night – 
and still, in all the darkness, 
my eyes closed to its sight. 

Its branches bent and rustled, 
as if they called to me: 
Come here, come here, companion, 
your haven I shall be! 

The icy winds were blowing, 
straight in my face they ground. 
The hat tore off my forehead. 
 I did not turn around. 

Away I walked for hours 
whence stands the linden tree, 
and still I hear it whisp’ring: 
You’ll find your peace with me! 

— Wilhelm Müller

References:

Deane, Green. “Basswood Tree, Linden, Lime Tree.” Eat The Weeds and Other Things, Too. Green Deane, n.d. Web.

Fernald, Merritt L. & Alfred C. Kinsey. 1958. “Edible Wild Plants of Eastern North America.” Harper & Row.

Grieve, M. 1971.  “A Modern Herbal; the Medicinal, Culinary, Cosmetic and Economic Properties, Cultivation and Folk-lore of Herbs, Grasses, Fungi, Shrubs, & Trees with All Their Modern Scientific Uses”. Dover Publications, New York.

Michaux, Francois Andrew. 1855. “The North American Sylva or A Description of the Forest Trees of the United States, Canada and Nova Scotia Vol. III”  Robert P. Smith., Philabelphia.

Prindle, Tara. “BASSWOOD – NativeTech: Indigenous Plants & Native Uses in the Northeast.”BASSWOOD – NativeTech: Indigenous Plants & Native Uses in the Northeast. Native Tech. Web.

Skinner, Charles M. 1939. “Myths and Legends of Flowers, Trees, Fruits, and Plants: In All Ages and All Climes.” Lippincott, Philadelphia. 

Wagner, Richard (translated by Margaret Amour). 1911. “Siegfried and the Twilight of the Gods.” Doubleday, New York.

Watts, Donald.2007. “Dictionary of Plant Lore.” Academic Press, Amsterdam.

Nina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press(Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times ‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” was released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.

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